RIO DE JANEIRO – The U.S. Olympic Tennis Team features this cast at the Rio 2016 Games: Nine rookies and a pair of sisters named Williams.
You’ve heard of them, right? Venus? Serena? Between them they have won five gold medals, including doubles and singles at both the Sydney 2000 and London 2012 Games.
“It’s always special to be back at the Olympics,” Serena, 34, told reporters Wednesday. “It’s why we fight so hard to be back.”
Serena is the top seed in women’s singles, which gets underway on Saturday, while Venus is seeded No. 5 and 21-year-old Madison Keys No. 7.
It’s a brand new experience for Keys and the remainder of the team, however, after reigning Olympic men’s doubles gold medalists Bob and Mike Bryan pulled out of Rio last week.
“I’m 31 and it’s my first one,” said doubles specialist Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who has won two Grand Slams in doubles. “I feel like a rookie.”
Other rookies include singles player Sloane Stephens, Mattek-Sands’ doubles partner CoCo Vandeweghe, singles players Jack Sock, Steve Johnson, Denis Kudla, Bryan Baker and doubles player Rajeev Ram. The 11-member team is the largest of any tennis squad at the Games.
Venus and Serena will pair up in doubles, while Johnson and Sock are one team in men’s doubles and Baker and Ram the other. The mixed doubles teams will be announced on Aug. 9 and will be up to U.S. coaches Mary Joe Fernandez and Jay Berger.
“Serena and I are both entered in the singles and doubles, so that will be our primary focus,” Venus, 36, explained. “If an opportunity comes up and it makes sense, then we’ll do it. But for now it looks like two events for us.”
Each member of the U.S. team expressed interest in the mixed doubles event, which fields 16 pairings. The U.S., depending on rankings, can have up to two mixed teams.
“I think all of us would be very happy to represent our country in whatever way that we can,” said Keys. “If the opportunity comes that we can play mixed doubles, we will.”
The tennis event begins Saturday and concludes Aug. 14, with men’s and women’s singles featuring draws of 64, doubles 32 and mixed 16. The men’s event is without top stars Roger Federer, Stan Wawrinka and Milos Raonic, while Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka and Simona Halep are not competing in the women’s.
It’s a benchmark Olympics for Venus and Serena, as they are playing at their fifth and fourth Games, respectively. They both put it on par Wednesday with winning one of tennis’ four Grand Slams, the sisters combining for 44 of those titles in their careers in singles and doubles.
“(The Olympics is) something you never take for granted,” Venus said. “This is an opportunity of a lifetime. We just couldn’t say no.”
“All of our lives, as tennis players, we dream of winning Grand Slams,” Serena added. “And then there’s the Olympics, which is totally different because you are playing for your country. When I held my first gold medal, it was a feeling I had never expected.”
Both Johnson (No. 12) and Sock (No. 16) are top-16 seeds in the singles draw.
“It’s nice to not have to play (world No. 1) Novak Djokovic in the first round,” joked Sock, 23. “We’ve worked hard to get here.”
“I’m going to go out there and try to make the most of it,” said Johnson, 26, who is a former NCAA singles champion.
Vandeweghe, 24, is the daughter of Olympic swimmer Tauna Vandeweghe, who swam for Team USA at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.
“It’s going to be pretty special, so I invited her to come out and experience this with me,” Vandeweghe explained. “She texted me telling me it’s been 40 years since she competed and my response – as a great daughter – was, ‘Jeez, you’re old.’”
“Old” would be one way to characterize the U.S. team overall: The Williams sisters, Baker, Ram and Mattek-Sands are all over 30, while Keys is the youngest at 21.
Vandeweghe says she’s fully recovered from a frightening ankle injury last month at a tournament in California in which she had to be wheeled off the court.
“I’ve been playing against the clock to get ready in time,” she said. “I’ve been taking care of myself and being smart and diligent about what I do.”
Ram learned just three days ago – after the Bryan brothers withdrew – that he would be headed to his first Olympics at the age of 32.
“This is an incredible honor,” said Ram, who got a call from coach Berger at his hotel in Toronto, where he was playing at an event, a few days ago. “It was overwhelming, but the decision for me was easy. I jumped at the chance.”
The 11 giggled more than anything else on Wednesday in front of the international press, having landed earlier in the day in Rio and obviously started a kind of bonding that only the Olympics can bring about.
“In tennis, we all know each other and seeing each other everywhere, but traveling as a group… it’s so exciting,” Mattek-Sands said.
“Being on a team like this with a lot of my friends that I’ve known for so long, it’s amazing,” Johnson added. “We’ve all watched Venus and Serena a million times and to be on the same team as them, is an honor. They’ve won a million gold medals… I don’t know how many.”
And will they win a few more in Rio? That’s what we’ll find out in the next 11 days for the sisters and the nine other members of Team USA.